COLEBROOK-With skies overcast and the rain gently falling, the Church in the Wildwood in North Colebrook offered a quiet sanctuary last Friday afternoon for Susan Caufield, who helps oversee the historic place of worship, and a visitor who had come to learn more about it.
Built in 1846, the simple white frame structure, where a vesper service is held every Sunday evening during the summer, is typical of early churches found throughout the country in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The summer services were started in the 1950s by a clergyman in Torrington, the Rev. Kenneth Cooper, and musicians Richard Blankenship and Larry Madison. The church had been sitting silent and unused, according to Mrs. Caufield, and the trio of men decided to have vesper services that featured a hymn sing, along with ending the season with a fall festival service on the first Sunday in October.
"It's so simple … it's just a very peaceful place," said Mrs. Caufield. Once a Baptist Church, the building is now under the auspices of the Historical Committee of the American Baptist Churches of Connecticut. However, a local ecumenical board of directors of 12 members has continued to look after the Church in the Wildwood. Mrs. Caufield is currently the group's president.
The church has more than just historical significance. It is a place to which people travel from all over the region to renew their faith. On one recent evening there was a couple from Winsted and another from Shelton, as well as guests from West Haven, Pomfret and Great Barrington and Otis, Mass.
Although the church has no presiding pastor, Mrs. Caufield said that there are spiritual advisers who sit on the board of directors-the Rev. Alice Murphy of the Colebrook Congregational Church and the Rev. Susan Wyman of the West Hartland Congregational Church.
Although many seek out the historic chapel, located in Colebrook on Route 183, at the intersection of Church Road, as " … a source of comfort and inspiration, away from the rush and bustle of our every day life," according to a description printed in the church bulletin, on Sunday summer evenings, the place really rocks when people from all faiths gather to sing hymns, the "old favorites."
Last Friday, Mrs. Caufield described the weekly hymn sing at the beginning of each vesper service as "a bit of a mad dash," something that is difficult to comprehend until you experience it for yourself.
"You sound good tonight," a lay leader told the 50 or so people gathered last Sunday night for the service, which is held every Sunday at 7 p.m. during the summer through Sept. 5. From baby rattles to walkers, and Methodists to Roman Catholics, a wide variety of ages and faiths were represented that evening-as is typical at all of the services at the Church in the Wildwood.
Before the song leader had a chance to finish his sentence, from opposite sides of the church, one member of the congregation yelled, "hymn number 303," and another shouted "number 56," almost simultaneously.
Although it was a close race, number 303 won out. "Number 303 it is," said the lay leader, who made his pronouncement with all of the authority of an auctioneer. Then he added, "Which verses do you want to sing?" After receiving the answer, the pianist and congregation turned the pages of their old hymnals and mustering much spirit, they melodically launched into "Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling."
After about 20 minutes of singing, the lay leader announced that there would be time for just one more hymn. "Number 317," said a preppy-looking man in a purple golf shirt. "It's The Old Rugged Cross," he added. A twitter of approval rolled like a wave throughout the congregation. "That's a good one," someone said of the evening's final selection. "Which verses?" asked the lay leader. "All of them!" said the golf-shirted guy. After the congregation had finished the final verse, the man turned to face his fellow congregants and said, "Thank you, very much, for singing all of the verses."
The "rule," if you will, which is printed in the church bulletin, is, "We'll sing one verse of full-page hymns and two verses of half-page hymns."
Last Sunday evening's sermon was delivered by the Rev. Warren Geraghty of Praise Christian Fellowship on Route 44 in Barkhamsted. His message was about evil. "There are times when God permits evil, so there will be a greater blessing on down the road," he told those in attendance, who seemed to be listening with rapt attention.
However, as Mrs. Caufield explained last Friday, if you don't like a minister one week, come back the next and hear a different one.
"It's an all-volunteer church," she explained, with a different minister each week. "Some ministers travel over an hour to get here … ." She said that many denominations are represented, but then she paused and asked, "Do you know any Episcopalians?" She said that she would like to invite an Episcopal priest to deliver a Sunday evening service, but she has had difficulty meshing schedules.
The focus at the Church in the Wildwood, as it was in the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents, is on "people gathering together," said Mrs. Caufield, "and in a beautiful place in nature."
The program and schedule at the little church in North Colebrook has not changed for more than 40 years. Mrs. Caufield said that the only change was started in the 1960s, when a different guest pastor was invited each week to lead the ecumenical worship service.
Each Sunday evening vesper service begins, after the prelude and the call to worship, with Hymn number 367, "The Church in the Wildwood," the beloved hymn written by Dr. William S. Pitts in 1857.
There's a church in the valley by the wildwood
No lovelier spot in the dale
No place is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale…
Because the Church in the Wildwood is white, the color of the church mentioned in the song is changed from "brown" to "white," a change reflected in ink in the church hymnals.
And to further embrace authenticity, one stanza of the song refers to a "clear, ringing bell" and a member of the congregation typically gets up to go ring the old church bell.
"Our churches are changing so much today," said Mrs. Caufield, who called it "heartwarming" to sit in a church and think that this is the way our grandparents and great-grandparents used to worship.
Weddings, funerals and memorial services are welcome at the Church of the Wildwood. "We are very open to sharing it," said Mrs. Caufield, who has been on the board since 2000.
In order to keep the church maintained, she said, "We rely on the generosity of friends and strangers," and all gifts and offerings go toward the maintenance and improvement of the building. Mrs. Caufield noted that the exterior of the church needs to be painted, and that inside, new pew cushions are needed.
Brian Rupe is the treasurer of the Church of the Wildwood, and donations may be sent to him at Camp Jewell, where he is the director. The address is 6 Prock Hill Rd., Colebrook, CT 06021.
Evening vesper services are held at the church every summer Sunday evening at 7 p.m., and the service lasts about an hour. The remaining season's schedule is as follows: Sunday, the Rev. Bobbie Chapman of Founders Congregational Church in Harwinton; Aug. 8, the Rev. Dr. Robert Owen Decker of Barkhamsted Center Church; Aug. 15, Mary Lou Tanner, program coordinator, Northwestern Center for Holistic Studies, NCCC; Aug. 22, the Rev. James A. DiQuattro of The Church of Christ in Winsted; Aug. 29, the Rev. Virginia Hall Wilcox of Winsted United Methodist Church, and Sept. 5, the Rev. Ruth Maedel of First Church of Winsted.
On the first Sunday in October, Oct. 3 at 3 p.m., the Church in the Wildwood will hold an afternoon fall foliage service.